Don’t Accept Free Drinks
Not so long ago, you may have come across disciples of the Hare Krishna sect floating around in saffron-colored robes as you hurried to catch a flight or a train to your destination. A member of the sect presented you with a small flower and a smile. If you’re like most people, you took the flower simply to avoid seeming rude. If you tried to refuse, you would have heard a gentle “Take it, this is our gift to you.” If you wanted to dispose of the flower in the next trash can, you found that there were already a few there. But that was not the end. Just as your bad conscience started to tug at you, another disciple of Krishna approached you again, this time asking for a donation. In many cases, this plea was successful—so pervasive that many airports banned the sect from the premises.
Psychologist Robert Cialdini can explain the success of this and other such campaigns. He has studied the phenomenon of reciprocity and has established that people have extreme difficulty being in another person’s debt.
Many NGOs and philanthropic organizations use exactly the same techniques: First give, then take. Last week, a conservation organization sent me an envelope full of postcards featuring all sorts of idyllic landscapes. The accompanying letter assured me that the postcards were a gift to be kept, whether or not I decided to donate to their organization. Even though I understood the tactic, it took a little willpower and ruthlessness to throw them in the trash.
Unfortunately, this kind of gentle blackmail—you could also call it corruption—is widespread. A supplier of screws invites a potential customer to join him at a big sports game. A month later, it’s time to order screws. The desire not to be in debt is so strong that the buyer gives in and places an order with his new friend.
It is also an ancient technique. We find reciprocity in all species whose food supplies are subject to high fluctuations. Suppose you are a hunter-gatherer. One day you are lucky and kill a deer. You can’t possibly eat all of it in a day, and refrigerators are still a few centuries away. You decide to share the deer with the group, which ensures that you will benefit from others’ spoils when your haul is less impressive. The bellies of your buddies serve as your refrigerator.
Reciprocity is a very useful survival strategy, a form of risk management. Without it, humanity—and countless species of animals—would be long extinct. It is at the core of cooperation between people (who are not related) and a necessary ingredient for economic growth and wealth creation. There would be no global economy without it—there would be no economy at all. That’s the good side of reciprocity.
But there is also an ugly side of reciprocity: retaliation. Revenge breeds counter-revenge, and you soon find yourself in a full-scale war. Jesus preached that we should break this cycle by turning the other cheek, which proves very difficult to do, so compelling is the pull of reciprocity even when the stakes are far less high.
Several years ago, a couple invited my wife and me to dinner. We had known this couple casually for quite some time. They were nice but far from entertaining. We couldn’t think of a good excuse to refuse, so we accepted. Things played out exactly as we had imagined: The dinner party was beyond tedious. Nevertheless, we felt obliged to invite them to our home a few months later. The constraint of reciprocity had now presented us with two wearisome evenings. And, lo and behold, a few weeks later, a follow-up invitation from them arrived. I wonder how many dinner parties have been endured in the name of reciprocity, even if the participants would have preferred to drop out of the vicious cycle years ago.
In much the same way, if someone approaches you in the supermarket, whether to offer you a taste of wine, a chunk of cheese, or a handful of olives, my best advice is to refuse their offer—unless you want to end up with a refrigerator full of stuff you don’t even like.